There is a struggle when evaluating films. Films are both art on some level and commerce on another. Inevitably when someone goes to make a purchase they need to know if what to expect. Does this car have a leaky gas tank? That kind of thing is important. Does it go as fast as I want? Now we’re getting into what the consumer wants. But art isn’t about consumption at least not primarily. At the same time, relevant economic systems with their long supply chains, armies of labor and world travel must be considered. These factors along with technological advancements in image capture, distribution and projection cement film as an art form that will never get away from financial consideration.
I’ve written before about how mass market manufactured products, no matter how much I resent their very existence, work on some level for people. Take for an example Jurassic World, the summer’s biggest hit that made its fortune on the back of america’s holy trinity of condescending sexual objectification, dinosaurs and snotty kids.
There’s a lot of crass reasons why people buy tickets. In writing about these kinds of products the best that can be done is working as a sort of matchmaker. Readers need to know which audiences and people go with which films. We can do this while still trying to elevate the discourse around a film beyond the indulgent elements that get people through the door. What is this film really saying?
This brings us to the James Bond films. These movies have been the picture of using indulgence to get people in the door. Fast cars, nice suits, beautiful women and respectably expensive alcohol are the marks of a Bond film. These are things that rich men love to get and the reasons that poor men wish they were rich. More than anything, James Bond is an ego trip. There’s nothing people like more than thinking highly of themselves and Bond’s effortless laid back demeanor feeds this impulse. If only we were him!
But then we got 2006’s Casino Royale which cut against the grain. Casino Royale was the first James Bond film to star Daniel Craig and it includes all the things that make a Bond film a Bond film but it did something else. It put a stop to the fantasy of James Bond. Casino Royale’s Bond is an ugly man who has to try incredibly hard. Even then he is bruised, battered and scarred. No one wants to be this guy.
An exemplar of what kind of break Casino Royale represents from the Bond canon is in torture. Previous entry Goldfinger put Bond’s manhood in danger with a comically large laser. Casino Royale had the villain whip Bond naked. There was no laid back illusion of safety. Everything was suddenly more real. The audience was forced to grapple with the film as more than just indulgence.
I mention all this because Spectre is bad. It’s a bad film but it starts good. An effortless long take style scene opens the film. The effortlessness in the cinematic language mimics Bond’s disposition as he stalks his prey in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. It’s a real classic look and feel that pivots when Bond goes from stealth to armed assault and chase. There is a corresponding switch to the more Jason Bourne hand held style that we are used to. This sequence represents a promise to make old new again but unfortunately it goes unfulfilled as this is the peak of the film.
There’s no worse phrase to say than, “fans will be happy” because it implies that the thing does not justify itself. It’s like saying an insult with a smiling face. It seems a bit dishonest.
Spectre is a film that will make fans happy. It has everything you could ever want, an incredible henchman villain played by Dave Bautista, absurd call backs to classic Bond moments and conventions, cool gadgets, global locations and impressive architecture.
It’s technically proficient and has updated its gender politics the minimum amount but ultimately it represents a return to the indulgence of the pre-Casino Royale world without any of the thoughtfulness and challenges that I’ve come to expect. The film does not transcend the requisite list of things that are needed for this to be a Bond film. It doesn’t justify itself for people who have never seen a Bond film. You’ll have a good enough time if you already in the market for this kind of fantasy.